Simplifying the Crowded Republican Field

After five Republican debates and what has seemed like endless weeks of campaigning, many news organizations are giving increased coverage to the primary race. It seems like every single day a new poll is released, and each new poll is met with analysis about what it means for each individual candidate. While this sort of analysis fills up time for our 24 hour news media, it also ignores a simple truth about the Republican race: with nine candidates still competitive, the field remains too crowded for any one candidate to become dominant. Sure, Trump is considered the “frontrunner” by polls and the news media, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys majority support among Republican primary voters. The actual breakdown of results for the top nine candidates invited to the last debate looks like this:

Admittedly, the data still shows that Trump is maintaining a commanding lead over other candidates. However, Trump’s 38% support in the polls hardly guarantees him victory, as he would need over 50% of the delegates to secure the nomination.1 Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, it seems like his support has more or less maxed out at its current levels. We here at Electoral Statistics have already explained how Trump sees little to no bump in support when poll respondents are asked to choose between candidates in a smaller GOP primary field, even though he has a commanding lead in the current polls. Support for more traditional candidates is currently split among the wide crowd, but is likely to coalesce behind one or two more traditional candidates when the field inevitably starts to winnow down. This means that Trump is likely to face increased competition in the future as other candidates approach him in the polls. 38% support gives one a commanding lead in the polls when there are nine competitive candidates left in the race, but doesn’t look as dominant once the field narrows to two or three candidates. Worse, even as a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed him in the lead by a whopping 23% margin, it also showed that only 29% of registered voters in the general populace would be very or even somewhat comfortable with a Trump presidency.

A better way to look at the polls is to split the candidates between the outsider candidates and the more mainstream candidates. This more accurately represents how the field will look at a later stage in the race, once the field has narrowed down to a clear establishment favorite. Treating Trump and Ben Carson as the “outsiders” and everyone else as the more traditional candidates, we find an almost perfect split within the Republican Party, with the two main outsider candidates receiving 48.0% support in recent polls and the mainstream candidates receiving 42.4% of the support.2

This approximately half and half split is a telltale sign of the internal rift currently present within the Republican Party. Establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would likely have trounced outsider candidates like Trump or Carson in years past. However, the anti-establishment push that we first saw in 2012 with Republican voters giving brief surges in popularity to a whole slew of candidates before finally settling on Mitt Romney has grown stronger in the last four years. The result is that, with outsider candidates polling at near 50%, Republican leadership has been forced to consider scenarios in which their nominee is not an establishment favorite.

Of course, there is no fine line between outsider candidate and establishment candidate, and the perfect example of why that is true is the sudden polling rise of Ted Cruz. As a U.S. senator, Cruz is hardly a political outsider, and yet many members of the Republican leadership have shown open dislike for Cruz. A loner within the Republican Party, but also a high profile senator, Ted Cruz seems to have a foot in each camp. Because of Cruz’s ability to play to both outsider and insider support, many pundits have forecast that he would start to see a surge in the polls, and his increase from 6% to 13% support in the last two months means that those prognostications are becoming true.

The presence of firebrand Ted Cruz, who has equal standing both as an insider and outsider, means that the most effective way to split up the current long list of candidates is not to use the simple insider v. outsider approach, but rather to include a third option just for Ted Cruz. Breaking the race up into three categories creates a breakdown of support that looks like this.

Outsiders (Trump and Carson) – 48%

Cruz – 13%

Insiders (Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, etc.) – 29.4%

While Trump and Carson enjoy the lead right now, our previous analysis shows that they will have a hard time keeping their numbers up and an even harder time acquiring new supporters. Carson’s support has been falling recently, and many of his evangelical voters have been turning to the Cruz camp. This means that even though the “outsider” category has the highest percent support here, they are not by any means in the strongest position. In addition to receiving defecting Carson supporters, Cruz also benefits from his ideological position between the outsider and insider camps. This means that if current supporters of insider or outsider candidates have doubts about their chosen camp or simply change their mind before the primaries and caucuses begin, they are more likely to switch to the Cruz camp than make the leap from insider to outsider or vice-versa. This means that even though Cruz has the lowest support of the triad, he is not necessarily in the worst position long-term.

That leaves the tired-and-true insider camp. They might be behind the outsiders right now, but it is also important to note that we have already seen a pivot to the establishment candidate after outsiders gained great traction early on just in the last election cycle, when Republican voters seemed to play a game of “anyone but Mitt Romney” before finally choosing Romney as the candidate. Additionally, endorsements from influential figures have often been much more predictive of final primary outcomes than early polling data, and establishment candidates have dominated both the outsiders and Ted Cruz in getting influential endorsements.

It’s still too early to determine which of these three camps will ultimately win out. History tells us the more moderate, establishment candidates are favored in the long run, but we’ve also not seen a campaign with such anti-establishment fervor in recent history. Regardless, narrowing the crowded field down to three groups serves as a useful analytical tool, and can help us make more accurate predictions as the race progresses.

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